What a lovely way to burn

Paul Constant

January 21, 2016

We live in a dystopian future in which the publishing industry puts out way too many works of dystopian fiction. The shelves of bookstores — young adult sections most especially — are packed to bursting with futures in which teenagers are forced to do battle for the amusement of the wealthy one percent, or in which a grizzled band of people who have seen too many bad things are trying to make their way to the mythical land of California, or in which Donald Trump is on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination.

Well, okay, that last one is a joke, but it also explains why dystopias are still a thing. We’re prone to believing the world is going to end, because we’ve always believed the world is going to end. People have always predicted that the next generation is going to cause the ruination of society. Politicians have always threatened the end of everything we hold dear. Dystopian fiction isn’t going away. It’s as old as humanity.

What we need is higher-quality dystopian fiction.

What do I mean by higher-quality dystopian fiction? Well, writers could stop ripping off the Hunger Games and The Road, for one thing. The Squadron of Sullen Teens Saving Society routine and the Road Trip of the Damned genre have both become cliché in the past decade, and yet terrible writers are still gnawing on the bones that Cormac McCarthy and Suzanne Collins left on the table. The last three dystopian novels I read were beautifully written, but they contributed absolutely nothing new to the idea besides a spray of beautiful sentences describing the ruins of modern society. That is not enough, anymore.

What dystopian fiction does best is it highlights a particular criticism of modern society. No matter how far in the future the stories are set, they are always about the present, though at their best they gain the sheen of timelessness. Orwell’s critique of lowest-common-denominator media and our over-reliance on authority is just as true today as it was the day he sent his manuscript off to his publisher. Margaret Atwood’s argument that women’s rights rest on the tenuous attention of a complacent populace is just as vibrant as it was in the middle of the 1980s.

For a dystopian novel to work, it needs to stick to the basics of science fiction writing:

  1. Look out your window.
  2. Change one thing.
  3. See what happens.

All of which is a long way of saying that the most successful dystopias are the simplest.

In Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo’s novel The Core of the Sun, (a book translated by Seattle Review of Books contributor Lola Rogers) the Finland of the future — the story is set mostly in 2016 and 2017 — is a eusistocracy, which is helpfully defined early on:

The social order of Finland, the “reign of health.” Derived form the Latin eu (good) and sistere (remain), literally “to remain in good condition.” See eusistentialist, eusistence. Example: “In a eusistocratic society the government’s most important task is to promote the overall health and well-being of the citizens.”

That only tells half the story, though. The basic premise of Core is that eugenics has taken root in Finland, and the government only allows the most feminine women (named eloi after Wells’s The Time Machine) and the most masculine men to breed. The unfeminine women, dubbed morlocks, are defined as “a disposable segment of society whose use is limited mainly to serving as a reserve labor force for routine tasks.” Many eloi can’t read, but all are encouraged to learn the ins and outs of housekeeping so that they can thrive in their government-issued calling as domestic goddesses.

The narrator of Core, Vera, is a feminine-presenting eloi with the heart of a morlock; where other girls played with dolls as children, she loved fire trucks. Vera finds the day-to-day occurrences of eloi life to be unbearably pedantic. She doesn’t care what men think of her. She secretly hoards illicit books. The government issued her a more feminine name — Vanna — but she still, in her interior life, thinks of herself as Vera, even if she convincingly passes for eloi when out in the world.

Sinisalo’s dystopia is interested in the gender binary, and the many rules for eloi like Vera are not too far removed from the glossy women’s magazines you’ll find at checkout counters in the real world. Women are expected to wear makeup at all times, and to make men comfortable, and to sacrifice everything for family and husband. Like the best dystopias, Core recasts a familiar concept into a slightly different world, in order to highlight exactly how strange our everyday beliefs are. It’s the best dystopian fiction I’ve read in a very long while.

But these questions of femininity and feminism make up the theme of Core, not the plot. The plot revolves around chili peppers. Yeah, you read that right. The Finnish government has all but eradicated contraband drugs and alcohol from their eusistocracy, and so those in need of a cheap high — including Vera — have to turn to the endorphin rush of hot peppers to get outside of their heads every once in a while. Vera is an out-and-out capsaicin addict, requiring stronger and stronger peppers to achieve the same highs she used to reach with a common jalapeño.

The story revolves around Vera’s addiction, which gets more and more hungry as her eloi presentation starts to crumble. Her sister, a more uncomplicated eloi, has disappeared. The sham life Vera has built around herself is becoming transparently desperate as she ages without getting married. And soon she falls in with an underground pepper-growing operation that could be targeted by a government sting operation at any moment.

Yes, all this is as absurd as it sounds. But yes, it absolutely works. Vera’s pursuit of the next source of peppery heat is what propels the plot forward and pushes her secrets out to the edges of the government’s search lights. Within the finely considered world Sinisalo has constructed, everything makes sense, and the internal logic is unimpeachable.

For those skeptics who are unsure if a chili pepper-smuggling unfeminine woman who must present as femme can prop a novel up for three hundred pages or so, Sinisalo opens the book with a scene that ties all these disparate elements together: Vera is testing a new pepper for heat, and she does so by inserting it into the very core of her femininity:

First the burn spreads across my lower body, my labia and vagina turning hot as glowing embers. The first drops of sweat form under my eyes, then along the edge of my scalp, then down my neck. The blood rushes in my ears. The stuff thrums a dredging bass note, almost an infrasound, with fantastic dark brown notes in its burn.

Vera then informs us, “The lower lip doesn’t lie.” If this novel is a mansion, Core has that sentence inscribed in the stone just above its front entrance. Vera is not what society tells her; her heart only resonates with a deeper truth, the story her body tells. She is a woman, yes. But she is not the kind of woman that everyone wants and expects her to be. Vera is her own person, and anyone arguing otherwise will never get to that secret part of her, the part that burns and screams and knows what it wants. All around her, society is going to hell. But Vera understands that the trick to hell is that you don’t have to burn unless you want to.

Books in this review:
  • The Core of the Sun
    by Johanna Sinisalo
    Translated by Lola Rogers
    Black Cat
    January 15, 2016
    304 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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